Summer unofficially draws to a close this weekend, though the weather says otherwise. We’re entering the time in between — neither this nor that — but it’s always the right time to find your next great read! Whether you’re looking for beachy or brainy or both, there’s something on this list for you.
If you’re not quite ready to leave the beach, my top recommendation is The Girls by Emma Cline, which spent the last few months on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s the summer of 1969 and teenager Evie Boyd is bored, unhappy and unsupervised. Her best friend has ditched her, and Evie falls in with a bad crowd; worse, a bad crowd that lives on a derelict property under the influence of a charismatic, cult-like leader. “Maybe this was a better way, even though it seemed alien,” Evie ruminates, “To be part of this amorphous group, believing love could come from any direction. So you wouldn’t be disappointed if not enough came from the direction you’d hoped.” You know where the novel is headed from the earliest pages: to the murder of innocents, Manson-family style. Cline’s examination of the power and danger of female friendship elevates this novel, as does her often arresting language.
The Girls might put you in the mood for Jeffrey Toobin’s buzzy and substantial new book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Toobin is no lightweight — a senior legal analyst at CNN, staff writer at The New Yorker, bestselling author and Harvard Law grad — and praise for this book has been lavish from all quarters. Reviewers have pointed out that Toobin makes a strong case for Hearst’s moral culpability: “If anyone still wonders whether she was brainwashed in captivity, as her superstar defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey claimed during her trial, Toobin … makes his own position perfectly clear. ‘Patricia Hearst was a woman who, through no fault of her own, fell in with bad people but then did bad things,’” notes the Washington Post. The Girls raises the very same question about moral responsibility but offers a less definitive answer, making it an ideal novel to read alongside American Heiress.
If murderous girls don’t interest you but you’d like a provocative read, consider Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. De Botton asks some big questions in a humorous and conversational style: How can travel change our moods, our attitudes, even our lives? What is the appeal of “the exotic” in foreign lands, or the allure of certain breathtaking landscapes? What do we remember and what do we forget from our journeys? Do we really need to go anywhere at all? He draws on the experiences of famous travelers — Charles Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Gustave Flaubert and William Wordsworth, among others — as well as his own journeys. De Botton’s understated British wit will have you smiling every step of the way. (If you can’t get enough of it, pick up his new novel The Course of Love, which also is on my nightstand table.)
Vivian Gornick’s new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir, has an equally distinctive voice — an unusual blend of sharp, friendly and rueful that I loved from the very first page. Here’s how she opens:
“Leonard and I are having coffee at a restaurant in midtown.
‘So,’ I begin. ‘How does your life feel to you these days?’
‘Like a chicken bone stuck in my craw,’ he says. ‘I can’t swallow it and I can’t cough it up. Right now I’m trying to just not choke on it.’
My friend Leonard is a witty, intelligent gay man, sophisticated about his own unhappiness.”
Gornick writes her memoir as a series of vignettes rather than a chronological accounting, which seems right: She makes sense of her life as a series of relationships — fleeting and intimate — with friends and strangers. The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir is in many ways a love letter to New York City and the relationships this particular city fosters, but its appeal is not limited to city-dwellers. The brilliance of this book is Gornick’s vivid appreciation of the strangeness and wonder of our fellow creatures.
Brad Watson’s new novel, Miss Jane, also brings a sense of wonder to the human experience. This is the book so many of my friends are buzzing about right now. Jane — a character based on the author’s great aunt — is born in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century with a physical defect that is both private and unavoidably public. “Sometimes physical realities expand us, sometimes trap; sometimes heroism lies in combating our helplessness, sometimes in accepting it. A writer of profound emotional depths, Watson does not lie to his reader, so neither does his Jane. She never stops longing for a wholeness she may never know, but she is determined that her citizenship in the world, however onerous, be dragged into the light and there be lived without apology or perfection or pity,” writes The New York Times.
Miss Jane takes place in a world most Southerners will recognize, at least in part. You won’t recognize a thing in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, which makes it a challenging — and also stunning — read (recently a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Novel Award). Set in 1990s Nigeria, The Fishermen is the parable-like story of four brothers who disobey their parents’ wishes and secretly fish in a cursed river. The village madman threatens them with a horrible prophecy — that one of the brothers will kill the oldest — and the rest of the novel follows the dreadful unwinding of the family. One of the things that makes this book bearable is the incredible imagery and language, both familiar and strange (“Spiders are beasts of grief … ” “Hatred is a leech … ” “I, Benjamin, was a moth: The fragile things with wings, who basks in light, but who soon loses its wings and falls to the ground.”) One of my dear friends who normally loves to sink her teeth into a sad, weighty book found it “unbearably troubling and fatalistic.” For me, there was a sufficient hopefulness but you maybe shouldn’t pick up this book if you need a lift.
Sometimes, a short story is all you need for lift-off. If you enjoy the particular explosive pleasure of a short story, try Patrick Ryan’s new collection, The Dream Life of Astronauts: Stories. Set in the 1980s in and around Cape Canaveral, Florida, the stories cover widely varied emotional territory: an unhappy wife is finally left by her husband; a washed-up astronaut invites a young man into his home in suspicious circumstances; an evil scoutmaster suffers a stroke; a young woman dreams of competing in the Miss Florida contest but there is the small matter of her pregnancy. Characters who appear in the early stories sometimes make surprise appearances in the later stories, showing you how things have turned out for them. Ann Patchett says that “Patrick Ryan’s stories are comedies that can just as easily be read as tragedies … They are stories that moved me beyond words.” And I’ll give her the last.
Please visit BaconOnTheBookshelf.com for additional reading recommendations, reflections, guest posts and stories about Pepper the dog.